SA Life

Get CityMag in your inbox. Subscribe
November 3, 2022

Karaoke, Chinese food and the power of the matriarchy

Two lead actors from State Theatre’s ‘Single Asian Female’ explain why the side-splitting and poignant play, with representation at its core, is so important.

  • Words: Angela Skujins
  • Pictures: Jessica Zeng
  • Above L—R: Elvy-Lee Quici and Juanita Navas-Nguyen

Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung recently wrote about the closure of his parents’ Chinese restaurant, Cheung’s Court, for independent publication Kill Your Darlings.

In conjuring memories of the eatery, the writer describes the ways in which it was a meeting point of Chinese and regional Australian culture.


Single Asian Female
4—19 November 2022
Dunstan Playhouse
Adelaide Festival Centre
Festival Drive, Adelaide 5000
More info here

At the beginning of the essay, Eugene describes the juxtaposition of the restaurant in its bucolic Australian setting. Later, he writes about the tension that sometimes occurred between subject and setting – like regular patrons mispronouncing his mother’s Chinese name. What he doesn’t say, but which bubbles beneath the text like a dumpling deep-fried in oil, is the power – and sometimes failure – of food to bind a family together.

Michelle Law’s play, Single Asian Female, which State Theatre is staging from 4—19 November at the Dunstan Playhouse, is partly set in a Chinese restaurant, the fictitious Golden Phoenix on the Sunshine Coast.

Pearl, played by Fiona Choi (known for her role in SBS series The Family Law), is a Chinese-born immigrant and restaurateur. Tension within the play builds with the announcement that Pearl is selling her apartment.

Meanwhile, her two daughters, 29-year-old Zoe (Juanita Navas-Nguyen, seen previously in Eureka Day and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and 17-year-old Mei (Elvy-Lee Quici, making her mainstage debut) are at their own crossroads – the former is in relationship turmoil, while the latter is having an identity crisis.

Actors Elvy-Lee Quici and Fiona Choi during rehearsals


“The play actually begins with [Zoe] living in Brisbane, and she gets a phone call from Mum basically saying, ‘We’re selling the apartment, you have to come back’,” Juanita tells CityMag. “So it’s that kind of having left the nest and then being brought back in.”

Juanita, who is of a similar age to Zoe and of Vietnamese and Colombian heritage, draws on her own experience as a woman of colour navigating disparate cultures for the performance.

“It’s a bit overwhelming that things are so familiar,” she says.

“Mei and Zoe, they are that kind of in between the western world and the eastern world, and I’ve experienced that myself.

“I remember growing up and being, like, ‘I refuse to be living at home with my parents when I’m 25 years old’. And then I got to 25 and, like, ‘Oh my god, I’m living with my parents’.”

Actors Allan Lyra Chang and Juanita Navas-Nguyen


Juanita considers Single Asian Female to be a particularly important work – a shining example of diversity in entertainment. It’s exactly the kind of narrative she wanted from her home television set while growing up.

“It wasn’t until I started seeing things that had people who had a similar life experience to me that I actually realised I was missing something,” she says.

“And it was that thing where as soon as I started seeking it out and actually started seeing it, the more I realised how much more we needed it.

“I get emotional about it… It’s really overwhelming, because I’m so not used to feeling that way.”

And while the play is important for centring an Asian story, with a cast who can imbue their characters with real-world experiences, it’s also very funny.

Set and costume designer Ailsa Paterson dressed the characters in sun-bleached coastal attire – denim shorts, tank tops and bathers. We’re even told a Missy Higgins t-shirt makes an appearance. But Ailsa also built a two-storey set, which encompasses The Golden Phoenix, a living room and a karaoke bar.

“We have so many karaoke numbers — karaoke is a big part of the play,” Juanita says. The actor emphasises that Single Asian Female operates as any good drama should, balancing comedy and tragedy.

Elvy-Lee Quici, who plays adolescent Mei, agrees. “It’s very, very comedic,” Elvy-Lee says. “People should expect a lot of laughs.”

Elvy-Lee Quici


Elvy-Lee describes her character as “a self-hating Asian”, and while this is not a descriptor she would use for herself, she’s tapped into a different personal tension for the role.

With Italian and Vietnamese heritage, Elvy-Lee says balancing the two was a struggle when she was young.

“You’re sort of grappling with this… type of identity crisis of, like, ‘Who can I be?’” Elvy-Lee says. “And I felt, growing up, ‘I have to be Italian. No, no, I have to be Vietnamese, because I can’t be both’. And I think that’s how I relate to Mei, is that you face those things at that age.”

She does recognise her relationship to her mother, and her experience of the power of the matriarch, in Single Asian Female.

“The mother, Pearl, she’s exactly like my mum,” Elvy-Lee says.

“And the way that they speak and how humorous and loving [they are, and] direct and how they speak is similar to my household. So I relate to it incredibly, and very personally as well.”

Beyond the specificities of the Asian Australian experience, the story speaks to the universal concept of family.

“It’s about love,” Elvy-Lee says.

“It’s about all the difficulties that we face and those turning points in our lives, and that relates to everyone, no matter what ethnicity you are, no matter who you are.”

Share —